Tuesday, 8 February 2011
Ayn Rand and the World She Made - Pt I
I look at the blank blogger page and I do not know where to start. I am about to talk about the greatest author ever born. Whatever I say about her will not be enough. Ayn Rand - genial, purposeful, relentless, talented, and self-destructive. The woman that created a whole new doctrine that praises the power of the human mind, the benefits of egoism, and the individualist as the greatest human being, is a role model and a life changer for many generations. Her life story is as brutal and controversial, as socially unacceptable and as madly praised as her novels. Ayn Rand - the woman whose novel Atlas Shrugged is the most read piece after The Bible.
I've had Anne Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made for quite a long time on my shelf. I always postponed reading it for a time, when I will be relaxed, calm, and free to enjoy it. I didn't know that this is going to be the most difficult thing I have read so far. That is why I decided that for the first time I am going to split my comment on a novel in two. As I keep reading about Rand's life, thoughts come up in my mind constantly that I am afraid I would have forgotten by the end of the novel. This is my first impression of the biography of one of the most controversial authors in world literature.
Anne Heller presents a thorough description of Rand's life from her birth as a Russian from a Jewish descent to her rise as one of the most powerful and influential writers. In 1905, when Alisa Rosenbaum is born, Russia is stil under the tsarist rue. In her early childhood, however, Rand experiences the painful transformation into the communist rule. As a jew, the child is a witness to the terrific anti-semitic movements in her home country. Whatever the political reality is, in Russia the jews at that time are scapegoats for everything. Her father, a clever and successful pharmacist, slowly loses his property and the family is forced to change homes constantly and to live in poverty and deprivation. Due to her descent, Rand is even expelled from university in the first years of the communist rule.
Her sufferings as a child are one of the first reasons for the formation of Ayn Rand's famous worldview. Raised to witness how the clever and capable people are robbed in favor of the needy and the mediocre, Alisa begins to detest all political systems that preach equality. Only 21 years old, Ayn is disillusioned and she emigrates in the USA - the country she believes is the land of free will, rationalism, and capabilities.
Her career begins as a playwright and screen writer. However, Rand doesn't receive the admirations she believes she deserves. The US in the 40's is mostly pro-communist. World War II has assembled the West and the East against their common enemy - Hitler. Rand's ideas about the virtues of capitalism, the powers of the human capacity, and the benefits of egoism are widely critiqued. Alisa is in a constant battle with producers, directors, and publishers in order to publish her works and to make her ideology known to the world. We the Living, her first novel and intellectual autobiography, doesn't provoque admiration and worship. People do not understand Rand's philosophy. Even her masterpiece, The Fountainhead, remains largely misunderstood. However, the latter still makes her one of the most talked-about authors of her time. Rand forms a circle of loyal followers, who are obsessed with her personality and her philosophy.
My thoughts on the first 300 pages of Rand's biography are numerous. I admire Heller for taking a neutral view on the great author's life. I expected a one-sighted story. A story that praises Rand and equalizes her even to God. Instead, Heller uses different sources to clearly portray that Rand is a human being with her flaws and contradictions. Throughout her whole life Ayn searched for the perfect human being. For her this transforms into a person, who accepts her philosophy as the absolute true, who is clever, intelectual, and most importantly an egoist and a capitalist. A single word is enough for Rand to proclaim an individual as unworthy of her company. Thus, she loses many friendships and acquaintances for the mere reason that once a person disappoints her with a simple thought or a word, she rejects him/her completely.
A second flaw of Rand's character is that she tends to underestimate the influence of other people on her writing and to overestimate the problems she faced when publishing and propagating her philosophy. Heller's investigations show that Ayn's descriptions of a certain event or a person change as their relationship evolves. If Rand is disappointed of someone, she rejects his influence or importance in her life completely. Thus, her memories and reflections differ largely throughout the years.
Do not get me wrong. I am not writing this to criticize Ayn Rand or to imply that I have been disappointed by her life. I am writing this to show that I am no blind admirer of her talent. Rand searched for the perfect human being - an individual with an incredible mind, who achieves everything in life thanks to his/her own capabilities. An individual who doesn't care about social opinion, charity, or altruism. An individual who works, develops, and invents for the sake of his own satisfaction. An individual, free of social norms or morals, who expresses his/her own sexuality freely. An individual, who is a capitalist, who doesn't do anything for the greater good but for his/her own individual happiness and enjoyment.
Rand was a severe perfectionist. She didn't meet ("surprisingly") any individuals who met her criteria. So she created them. She created a world she wanted to see. Howard Roark, Dominique Francon, Dagny Taggard, and John Galt are all the super human-beings, who Ayn wanted to see in the world. People with a perfect mind, with a strong heart, and with a great intelectual power and potential. Rand believed herself to be that kind of a person. Heller shows us that the author is not a fictional superhero as many of her followers and admirers thought or are still thinking. Rand created a philosophy of the flawless human mind but she exhibited positive and negative characteristics just like every normal individual. Ayn felt to see her mistakes. She identified herself with the fictional characters she created - the rationality that strikes. Heller saw this. In Ayn Rand and the World She Made she portrays objectively the life of the great woman, with her successes and downfalls, showing all of us that even though her characters might be perfect, Rand is not. Even though she claimed to be.
This reasoning doesn't in any way undermine the fact that Ayn Rand created one of the most influential theories in world history - objectivism. Based on the idea of individualism, rationalism, and capitalism, this world view gives an image of how a society where individuals receive only what they deserve might function. In contrast with communism, where people receive goods according to their needs, Rand's objectivism claims that the engine of the world is the mind of its most intelligent and capable individuals. Thus, the main theme of her most praised novel Atlas Shrugged is the disaster that occurs when rationality strikes and the world is left in the hands of mediocre and weak followers, who do not create but copy. These marauders live off the inventons of the people that surpass them both in mind and in abilities. So what happens when this engine stops? To be continued...